Pregame Six Pack: Primetime at Purdue

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Four down, eight to go.

After digging themselves into an improbable 0-2 hole, the Irish are ready to push their way above .500, a long slog back after two really disheartening losses. They’ll have their chance to do it in primetime Saturday night, with the Irish and Boilermakers kicking off at Rose-Ade Stadium at 8:00 p.m. ET. (You can join me, as always, for a very spirited live-blog.)

With losses on consecutive Saturdays to open the season, the Irish faced traditional opponents Michigan State and Pittsburgh, two teams that Notre Dame has struggled with in recent years. That the Irish dispatched the Spartans handily and escaped Pittsburgh with a win was everything the Irish needed to do to get their season back on pace. Yet as only Irish fans can do, a very vocal contingent has turned more negative about the season than they were after dropping the first two games of the year.

After two weeks of offensive regression, Tommy Rees and the Irish offense have a chance to go put together a solid performance. They’ll need to do it in front of 60,000 fans and a primetime ESPN audience. Entering the second act of the season, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftover and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to take on Purdue at 8:00 p.m. ET.

1. Offenses beware: Running against the Irish is no easy feat.

In retrospect, the Irish’s performance against Pittsburgh running back Ray Graham already looks much better than it did last Saturday. The Irish defense held Graham to 89 yards on 21 carries, letting Graham loose for a 42-yard scamper, his longest play from scrimmage on the year. Even with that run, Notre Dame held Graham to his lowest output on the season, just days before he was unleashed against South Florida on Thursday night, running for 226 yards on 26 carries.

After four games, the Irish shutting down impressive running games is starting to become a trend.

Thanks to the Irish Sports Information Department, here are the Irish four previous opponents, how they’ve run the ball against the Irish, and how they’ve done against everybody else:

USF                                              Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               126.0                                                       262.7
Average Per Rush                      3.0                                                           6.1

Michigan                                     Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               114.0                                                       348.0
Average Per Rush                      4.4                                                           7.3

Michigan State                           Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               29.0                                                        181.3
Average Per Rush                      1.3                                                           4.1

Pittsburgh                                    Vs. Notre Dame                                    Vs. Everybody Else
Rushing Yards/Game               103.0                                                       192.6
Average Per Rush                      2.7                                                           4.4

Purdue head coach Danny Hope understands the Irish will be the best challenge his upstart running game will face.

“They’re good against the run. They can shut your run game down,” Hope said of the Irish defense. “Most of their opponents this season have struggled to manufacture any sort of run game. When that happens, you become somewhat one-dimensional and that plays into their hands.”

We’ll see how Ralph Bolden and Akeem Shavers do against a stingy Irish defense. It’ll likely tell the story of the Boilermakers offense.

2. Brian Kelly has made it clear just how important this game is… to Purdue.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly isn’t a guy that puts his foot in his mouth too often. But there’s one thing he’s done consistently this week that’s been a bit of a head scratcher: He’s continued to call this weekend’s game Purdue’s Super Bowl.

“This is their Super Bowl. This is the biggest game on their schedule by far,” Kelly said earlier in the week, and continues to echo this line of thought. “There’s no question about it. We’re going to get everybody’s best shot.”

It’s true that the Notre Dame is usually one of Purdue’s most important games on the season, but something about an opponent’s coach naming  your team’s Super Bowl strikes me as a little strange. But backing up the truck, maybe it’s a case of Kelly playing some motivational games with his own team.

If there’s a common theme Kelly is hitting on with his team, it’s that Purdue is a team that’s going to be on a mission. They’re hosting a large recruiting weekend, turning Saturday into a Gold & Black game, and are on the verge of pulling off a sell out crowd. Combine all of that, and there’s little doubt that Danny Hope’s squad comes ready to play.

(That said, if Kelly’s just taking a dig at Jim Delany‘s B1G conference and its merry band of cupcakes on the schedule, I’d probably get a chuckle out of that, too.)

Realistically, we’ve got no clue what kind of team we’ll be seeing on Saturday night. They snuck by one directional state school and thumped another one, and sandwiched those games between losing to one of the worst teams in D-I football. Then again Pitt gave up seven sacks to Maine and only beat the Black Bears by six before absolutely killing USF Thursday night.

The message? Frankly, I have no idea.

3. Purdue is confident sophomore Ricardo Allen might have some answers for Michael Floyd.

If Purdue was looking for the blueprint to slow down Michael Floyd, they may have gotten a peak last weekend against Pitt. But Purdue also has a weapon of its own, sophomore cornerback Ricardo Allen, who walked onto campus last year for Hope and became one of the team’s best defenders. Good news for Boilermaker fans? He’s still getting better and better.

“I think Ricardo has really progressed from this point in time last year,” Hope said. “It’s hard to tell because a lot of people are not throwing his way and running the ball. Maybe just the stats and his numbers don’t jump out at you quite like they did this time last year. I think he’s really improved from where he was at this time last year as far as we can tell because he has not been tested. Saturday, he’ll be matched up on one of them.”

That “one of them” is Michael Floyd. How the Boilermakers decide to help Floyd should determine how big of a difference Tyler Eifert, Theo Riddick or TJ Jones make.

“Obviously, if they have two or three guys looking at you all the time, there’s obviously got to be someone open,” Floyd said Wednesday. “We’re trying to get the guy open. I’m trying to do as much as I can to make sure to put [Tommy Rees] in the most comfortable spot as possible.”

Allen will likely stay on the field side of the formation while fellow cornerback Josh Johnson covers the short side. Whether or not the corners switch sides to keep an eye on Floyd, it’s clear Purdue’s secondary knows the Irish receivers present a challenge.

“We feel comfortable with those two guys and we don’t have to run around and match up,” Purdue DB coach Lou Anarumo said. “They have three good receivers. Michael Floyd is a great player but the other three — two wide receivers and the tight end — they’re very good players.

“We’re going to be conscious of where (Floyd) is every snap but we’ll be aware of the other guys that can beat you too.”

If I had to guess, expect to see the Irish try and jump start Riddick with some easy completions.

4. Credit Kelly and company for some nice work with halftime adjustments.

If you were surprised by Pitt scoring on their first possession of the third quarter, it’s because it just hasn’t happened all that much for the Irish. Tim Prister of IrishIllustrated.com crunched the numbers, just to show how impressive the Irish have been after making their halftime adjustments.

Notre Dame has pitched a shutout in six of the last nine third quarters, surrendering a mere 23 points.

Only Pittsburgh last week has put together a sustained scoring drive in the third quarter against the Irish in their last nine games, and that required a roughing the punter penalty to keep the drive alive.

“That’s what we’re trying to build here,” said Brian Kelly Wednesday when asked about Notre Dame’s recent third-quarter prowess. “We knew that our success was going to be linked toward building a defensive philosophy and a mentality and a way we play.”

Notre Dame’s third-quarter numbers are even more impressive when you consider that Tulsa’s seven third-quarter points last season came on a 59-yard punt return while USC’s 10 third-quarter points came on a field goal that capped a seven-play, 25-yard drive and a four-play, two-yard “touchdown drive’ following a Tommy Rees fumble.

Over the last nine games, Notre Dame has out-scored its opponents in the third quarter, 59-23. Over the last eight games, Notre Dame has a 51-16 advantage.

In five of those nine third quarters, the Irish have surrendered 59 yards or less. Only Michigan has gained more than 100 yards in the third quarter (137), thanks in large part to a 77-yard pass completion (that eventually led to a fourth-quarter score).

Even Pittsburgh didn’t crack the 100-yard mark in the third quarter against the Irish last week, despite a 19-play, 80-yard drive. The Panthers’ other drive in the third quarter netted a minus-eight yards.

There will still be complaints about the Irish’s defensive coaching until Gary Gray starts winning some one-on-one deep balls and Bob Diaco‘s troops slow down Air Force and Navy, two games that should be absolutely intriguing from a Xs and Os point of view.

One thing is certain though, Diaco’s continual preaching of the fundamentals has helped turn this defensive unit into a BCS caliber group.

5. The trip to West Lafayette is a return home for new Irish trainer Rob Hunt.

If you’re looking for one of the most under-reported stories of the offseason, it was Brian Kelly bringing in Oklahoma State trainer Rob Hunt, completing a major overhaul of the medical and training staffs that oversee the football program. Hunt’s work with the Irish has already helped the team, with the Irish staying relatively healthy through four physical games on the schedule.

Hunt’s career has seen him zig-zag from Ball State to Missouri to Southeast Missouri to Oklahoma State. But the chance to return to his home state of Indiana was just too good to pass up.

Sam King in the Lafayette Journal & Courier has more about the West Lafayette native:

A return to Indiana was welcome for Hunt and his wife, Krista, also a 1993 West Lafayette graduate.

After never being closer than six hours from West Lafayette, moving to South Bend has offered plenty of family time in the last six months.

It also gave Hunt the opportunity to work with one of the most storied college football programs.

“Certainly all of us have dreams to be at the pinnacle, at the best of your profession,” Hunt said. “I prided myself on doing a good job no matter where I’ve been. I didn’t know where it would take me.

“The tradition here is unlike any other. It’s difficult to describe. It’s been a great six months for me to this point. We’re looking forward to many years here supporting this football program and coaching staff.”

Kelly, Notre Dame’s second-year head coach, is equally as happy to have Hunt.

Upon hiring Hunt, Kelly was quoted in the Chicago Tribune as saying, “We think we got the best in the country.”

Last season, it seemed like just about every non-lineman on the team was battling hamstring problems at one point or another, with the Irish losing a ton of critical minutes with correctable injuries like muscle pulls. Right now, only Danny Spond has missed any time from a hamstring injury, with the only other major injury being fifth-year tight end Mike Ragone’s torn ACL.

Hunt comes from a large family of Purdue graduates and fans, making the weekend back home even more special.

“We’ve watched a bunch of Purdue games in that stadium,” Hunt to the J&C. “It’s going to be a little different standing on that sideline as a member of the opposing team.”

6. It’s time for Tommy Rees to start building some confidence… as three quarterbacks are waiting.

If the Irish are going to get to the places they want to this season, they’ll need Tommy Rees to start developing some confidence. While Kelly has done his best to shield his young quarterback, the sophomore knows he’s got to play better.

“I think the whole being a sophomore thing isn’t really that relevant anymore,” Rees said. “I need to improve how I’m playing and keep getting better. It can’t be a matter of age or experience. I think I can be the quarterback for this football team and I think I need to be learning by my mistakes and playing up to my capabilities.”

There has been enough debate this week about Irish quarterbacks to last an entire offseason. But if Rees is going to continue to pilot this offense, he’ll need to take big strides against Purdue and Air Force, two defenses that shouldn’t stack up all that well against the Irish’s explosive and balanced attack.

Kelly has made it clear that he’s still supporting Rees as his starting quarterback, but you’ve got to think the head coach would also love winning one of the next two games comfortably so he’s able to give Dayne Crist another chance to play, only this time in a low-leverage situation.

Kelly talked about keeping all four of his quarterbacks ready to go, even when it’s been Rees that’s taken every snap since halftime against South Florida.

“First of all the quarterback situation is such that the No. 2 knows he has to be ready,” Kelly said after Thursday’s practice. “So he’s doing his work because he knows he’s one snap away from being in there, so you never worry about two in that sense.

“I try to spend more attention and time with three and four. That’s why we’ve had them both stay with us and be part of meetings and game planning as well as go over there and get some work. I’ve tried to spend a lot of time with the threes and fours in keeping them engaged and learning our offense. I meet with them individually as well to just make sure that they’ve got a good base.”

That Kelly himself spends time with the third and fourth sting quarterback is just an amazing contrast from what Charlie Weis used to do with his quarterbacks. But it also helps explain why he’s kept so much harmony in a really difficult quarterbacking situation, where a roster imbalance meant bringing in multiple kids bunched together, something that makes depth chart continuity tough.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Notre Dame vs. USC: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much?

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WHO? No. 13 Notre Dame (5-1) vs. No. 11 Southern Cal (16-1), two of 16 or 17 genuine College Football Playoff contenders, though the loser of this matchup will no longer be able to make that claim.

WHAT? This one should come down to how well the Irish defense can limit the Trojan offense. If this becomes a shootout, the road team will hold the edge.

WHEN? 7:42 p.m. ET. The sun will have already set by then, making for a comfortable fall evening, and fans facing west in the Notre Dame Stadium should be quite grateful for that prime-time start.

WHERE? Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind., and broadcast on NBC.

The game will also be available through the NBC Sports app or online at: http://stream.nbcsports.com/notre-dame/notre-dame-usc

Those abroad should take a look at NBC Sports Gold for the evening, and for anyone desperate to see the Notre Dame band perform with Chicago at halftime: http://stream.nbcsports.com/notre-dame/notre-dame-halftime-show

WHY? To quote Tom Rinaldi from the top of a recent “Onward Notre Dame” special about the Irish rivalry with the Trojans, “There are two ingredients to a great football rivalry: history and hate.”

In many respects, those two factors are intertwined. Remember Notre Dame’s 1988 national championship season? USC entered the season finale against the Irish also undefeated at the time. One can hardly fault the Trojans for hating Notre Dame for spoiling that potential title season, even though USC then went on to lose to No. 11 Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

Let’s not spend any more time here than necessary on USC’s most-recent ruining of Irish dreams in 2005. Some Notre Dame fans have yet to recover from those few moments of premature joy. They don’t seem to find much comfort in knowing that game isn’t counted in either the official series record or USC’s all-time record due to something or other about an unnamed player receiving benefits above and beyond what the NCAA allows.

BY HOW MUCH? This line has held consistently at 3.5 points in favor of the Irish while the combined points total over/under has ticked up from 60 to 65.5. That jump would lead to a theoretical conclusion of Notre Dame 34, USC 31.

That sounds a bit like the aforementioned shootout. Perhaps if some of those points come from special teams or a defensive touchdown, such an output would make more sense, but those unexpected joys are beyond predicting. Thus, let’s defer to home-field advantage while skewing a bit lower.

Notre Dame 27, USC 23. (5-1 record on the season.)

In other words, the Irish convert in the red zone one more time than the Trojans do.

STAT TO REMEMBER: USC has turned the ball over 16 times in seven games. The Trojans have also forced 16 turnovers. Which one of those slows this weekend will likely make all the difference.

FACT TO REMEMBER: The only unbelievable part of the greatest Christmas movie ever made, “Die Hard,” is that the security guard is distracted by a Notre Dame vs. USC game, despite it being Christmas Eve. The teams have never played later than Dec. 10, which came all the way back in 1932.

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:
Questions for the Week: Wimbush’s health & the unpredictability of college football
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Navy falls, dropping undefeateds to only Georgia and Miami (FL)
QB Wimbush & Notre Dame RBs healthy; LB Martini not
Notre Dame relies on QB Brandon Wimbush to keep drives alive despite passing struggles
And In That Corner … The USC Trojans and turnover/touchdown-machine Sam Darnold
Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s defense to be tested by USC in ways it has not yet seen
Notre Dame without LB Greer Martini and with a hampered Dexter Williams
Friday at 4: Bye Week Mailbag Part Two

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
Adams and Wimbush give Notre Dame more than meets the eye
Notre Dame’s ‘Ridiculously Photogenic Running Back’ reflects on the photo that made him a meme

Friday at 4: Bye Week Mailbag Part Two

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The bye week mailbag went pretty well. In fact, there were many more questions than any reasonable word count could have allotted for. Then again, the internet is limitless, so clearly the constraint was not word count but rather time in this schedule.

Fortunately, another week provides another late Friday afternoon opportunity to put off work, ponder pointless items and do the mental math of just how much longer until 7:42 p.m. ET on Saturday. (As of this posting, exactly 27 hours, 42 minutes.)

Another question came in completely unsolicited late this Tuesday, but it seems the right one to start with considering, again, it’s a late Friday afternoon and the next item on your to-do list might be influenced by this discussion.

Keith never offered Dan an answer, but he did ask a very necessary question.

Since the NBC primetime slot will give Dan plenty of time to recover Saturday, he did not seem to think a headache tomorrow should be a mitigating concern tonight.

Now, let’s presume Dan has already done the campus tour, has plans of seeing the Grotto after dusk and is not willing to wait two hours for good, but not so great it is worth waiting two hours for, pizza. Instead, it is rather clear Dan has beverages on his mind.

There are the obvious nominations. The ‘Backer is a Notre Dame staple and the location most-often referenced in national lists or features. Corby’s claims a cameo in “Rudy,” even if that was at a different location. Younger alums swear by Blarney Stone, colloquially known as Finny’s, which has led to some confusion with the newer option in town named Finnie’s.

All of these, though, present a steep hurdle to Dan’s seeming intent. The bartender-to-patron ratio is far too low. Even if not looking for a distinct number of drinks, the aggravation of waiting and waiting for a drink defeats much of the intended purpose of the drink in the first place.

Closer-to-campus options may not present the tradition, specials or grime of some of the longer-held staples, but they do adequately staff up for game weekends, and that is all-too-often an overlooked aspect of finding a good evening.

USC topped the Irish in the return of night games at Notre Dame Stadium in 2011, also the only defeat following a bye week in coach Brian Kelly’s Irish tenure.. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

When Notre Dame first rekindled these night games for USC’s 2011 visit, it was not yet clear playing under the lights would become an annual or even biannual occurrence. That alone spiked both the demand for the tickets and the number of Friday night arrivals.

When visiting a town, people tend to head to the intended establishments earlier. Why spend that time in the hotel room, after all? Thus, when the then-seniors finished their weekly preparations and set out for their usual locations, those spots were already filled by alums, subway alums and a third of Chicago.

The scramble to find somewhere more than four people could get into would have been comical if it did not seem so dire at the time. The found answer was a basement bar usually popular only once a week. This solution worked great … for only one drink.

There was but one bartender. She never stood a chance serving 200 college seniors. Not a single one of them got a second drink there.

That may be more in the category of vague advice than an outright answer to Dan’s question, but it should at least be a step in the direction.

Hey Doug, do you know ND’s record after a bye week under Brian Kelly? Would be interesting to see if there’s a history of coming out flat.
captaincalzone
In Kelly’s seven seasons at Notre Dame, the Irish are 8-1 coming off bye weeks, the only loss coming in the aforementioned crowded night game, often referred to as “The Crazy Train Game.”

2010: W 28-3 v. No. 15 Utah
2011: L 17-31 v. USC
2012: W 41-3 v. Miami
2013: W 14-10 v. USC; W 23-13 v. BYU
2014: W 31-15 at Syracuse; W 49-39 at Navy
2015: W 24-20 at No. 21 Temple
2016: W 30-27 v. Miami

Another commenter responded to this inquiry with doubts about any validity to presumptions drawn from the 8-1 record.  Yes, a new coaching staff may have different rhythms than Kelly’s previous assistants, but the overall tendencies of the week likely remain intact.

Does this mean the Irish will win tomorrow? No, but it is another advantage in their favor, especially since USC will not have a bye week this season until the regular season is complete. Notre Dame should be fresh tomorrow. The Trojans are coming off a tough one-point victory over Utah, their sixth Power Five opponent in six weeks. On that note, let’s complement USC’s schedule. The only non-Power Five foe is Western Michigan. The Broncos may not be the same test as they were last year, but that is still a stiff slate for the Trojans.

Bookmakers offering odds of 50-1 for Irish national championship. Odds will be different after our next game.
Hui73
I suppose that isn’t technically a question. Whatever. It included a four-letter word that will always draw attention around here. It may be surprising to see Notre Dame’s odds that high. Auburn, LSU and South Florida all have the same odds. The first two of those have two losses already and each still await a date with Alabama. South Florida should reach its season finale 11-0. If the Bulls can then get past Central Florida (also undefeated to date) and either Memphis or Navy in the American Athletic Conference title game, it is still hard to envision them being given a spot in the College Football Playoff.

The Irish being on the same level with those teams is a reflection of their schedule more than anything else. The bookmakers are essentially saying a six-game parlay of Notre Dame beating USC, North Carolina State, Miami (FL), Stanford, a semifinal opponent and Alabama would pay at 50-to-1. Looking at it from that perspective, those 50-to-1 odds are remarkably low. Even conservative estimates of future lines would peg that six-game parlay at something more akin to 87-to-1.

If the Irish beat USC tomorrow, those odds may drop, but they won’t drop all that much. The subsequent proposed five-game parlay following such a victory would be valued at 53-to-1 or so. The 50-to-1 status is a suitable placeholder until fewer teams are in national title contention.

Let’s make this simple: North Carolina State and Jaylen Samuels are really good at the football thing. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

It should be mentioned North Carolina State also comes in with 50-to-1 odds. Again, that is a nod to the Wolfpack schedule. In addition to visiting Notre Dame next weekend, North Carolina State still has to host Clemson and, theoretically, face an ACC title game foe, quite possibly Miami. For that matter, the Wolfpack will likely be an underdog in all three of those games, not to mention the following two Playoff games in this scenario.

Look, People: Syracuse put up 25 points on NC St. 25!!!! NC St. won that game 33-25. (Marshall put up 20.) I’ll stop now.
25kgold
Underestimate North Carolina State at your own peril. This space has been predicting the Irish would lose to the Wolfpack since before the season and it would take quite a performance against USC tomorrow to change that stance.

The Orange just beat Clemson 27-24 and average 31.3 points per game. The Thundering Herd average 26.5 points per game, and that is boosted by jumping out to that 20-10 lead over North Carolina State back on Sept. 9. Of course, the Wolfpack then scored 27 unanswered points.

What is the status of freshman kickoff specialist Jonathan Doerer? No complaints about how Yoon was kicking touchbacks last game, but I know Doerer was given a scholarship in order to keep Yoon’s leg fresh for field goals.
Nd1975fla
Doerer was indeed recruited for that purpose, but two aspects seem to have junior kicker Justin Yoon continuing to handle kickoffs as he will again tomorrow. Doerer struggled to keep the ball inbounds, a costly penalty. Perhaps that got to his head, or perhaps the Notre Dame coaching staff simply doesn’t trust him. Either way, it was an issue. On top of that, some of Yoon’s fatigue last season has been attributed to an injury of some variety. If healthy throughout this year, he should be able to handle the entire workload.

I think we could classify the first part of the season as a success, taking everything one step at a time. We now come to the second part — this looks like a different schedule than in the beginning of the year with No. 11, No. 16, a 4-2 Wake Forest, No. 8, Navy and the triple-option, and No. 22.
Best-case scenario, win them all. Are the Irish in the playoffs?
Dmacirish
Yes. For this exercise, let’s presume the not-yet-existing College Football Playoff poll would be similar to the AP top 25. At No. 13 right now, Notre Dame would need to move up nine spots in the polls. Two of those come courtesy of knocking off USC and Miami, both ahead of the Irish. Seven to go.

Only one of the Big 12’s Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and TCU will remain ahead. Five to go.

At most, two of the three Big Ten possibilities will end the season as Playoff considerations. Either Ohio State runs the table and is Penn State’s only loss, or Wisconsin beats Penn State and both stay in the conversation. Either scenario removes a concern from Notre Dame’s checklist.

Mere attrition does not guarantee anything further than that. Schedule strength, however, does. If the Irish finish the season with that streak of wins, their résumé would dwarf anything from the Big 12 or the Big 10.

Worst-case scenario, lose them all. Does this board and the rest change their tune on Brian Kelly? Does Irish football even exist after Nov. 25?
— Still Dmacirish
A 5-7 finish would likely be a death knell for Kelly’s tenure, but Notre Dame football will continue. Be assured of that.

Middle road, win some and lose some. What is the number needed to maintain this feeling of “success?”
— Dmacirish’s conclusion
That is a question better answered in-person with qualifiers and conditional statements, a bevy of if, might, maybe and but, and a drink.

Just make sure you don’t spend so long waiting for the drink the question is forgotten before even answered.

Notre Dame without LB Greer Martini and with a hampered Dexter Williams

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Irish coach Brian Kelly confirmed senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini will miss No. 13 Notre Dame’s matchup with No. 11 USC on Saturday. Martini suffered a meniscus injury in a practice last week and underwent arthroscopic surgery last Thursday, Oct. 12. There is a chance the team’s third-leading tackler could be back next week when No. 16 North Carolina State arrives in South Bend.

“He’s moving around today pretty good, but we would be rushing to get him back,” Kelly said Thursday. “We’ll hold him out this week, but we feel really confident we’ll get him back next week.”

With Martini sidelined, that will lead to more playing time for junior linebacker Te’von Coney, the defense’s second-leading tackler. (Senior linebacker and captain Nyles Morgan takes top honors to date.) Behind Coney, the questions and inexperience accumulate quickly.

Kelly indicated sophomore linebacker Jamir Jones would see some snaps. Jones has made one tackle thus far this season. If need be — either due to fatigue or injury — senior Drue Tranquill could move to the linebacker-specific position from his typical rover duties, and junior Asmar Bilal would fill in at rover.

RELATED READING: Things to Learn: Notre Dame’s defense to be tested by USC in ways it has not yet seen

From there, Notre Dame’s best option may be utilizing more nickel packages as its base defense against the Trojans. If nothing else, each moment of nickel would reduce the snaps needed from the Morgan-Coney-Tranquill trio by a third.

More injury updates

Notre Dame expects only limited contributions from junior running back Dexter Williams this weekend as he continues to recover from a sprained ankle. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

The bye week did not solve all of the Irish ankle woes. Junior running back Dexter Williams is not back to 100 percent, per Kelly, though sophomore running back Tony Jones is.

“Dexter I’d say is less than 100 [percent],” Kelly said. “I would say he couldn’t sustain multiple carries but he could get us a couple of carries at full strength so we’ll have to pick our spots with him.”

Senior right guard Alex Bars is as close to 100 percent as Kelly would deem anybody. Bars sprained an ankle in Notre Dame’s 33-10 victory at North Carolina on Oct. 7.

“I don’t know if anyone is at 100 percent, but he’s functioning at a high level without any limitations.”

If Bars were to re-aggravate the injury, it is worth noting in his absence the Irish offensive line saw sophomore Tommy Kraemer shift to right guard from his timeshare at right tackle and freshman Robert Hainsey took over full-time duties at right tackle.

On Brandon Wimbush’s three-week layoff
If knowing junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush would suffer a grade one right foot strain, Kelly probably would have jumped at the chance of it coming only a week before the bye week, giving Wimbush a full three-week window to get healthy. The drawback of that, however, is Wimbush has spent three weeks not playing aside from practice. With that in mind, Kelly and Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long attempted to push the pace this week to remind Wimbush of the reality of game speed.

“It was really important to speed up practice and put him in situations where things were a little faster for him because they’re going to be fast for him Saturday night,” Kelly said. “He needs to know that and we really pushed him hard this week to play fast. Anything that was not done at a fast pace was not graded out in a positive manner. He understands that. He knows what to expect.

“It’s going to take him a little while to get into it and we’re aware of that from a play-calling standpoint, as well.”

Kelly did say despite those concerns, Wimbush showed excellent growth in the week’s practices, going so far as to describe Thursday as Wimbush’s best practice in three years. In an example of that progress with a more short-term view, Kelly pointed to the Irish offense’s struggles in two-minute drills both in practices and in games.

“We couldn’t even get a first down throughout the entire camp and into the first five weeks during two-minute,” he said. “We were three-and-out. We move the ball down the field now, and that’s a huge accomplishment.”

On recruiting
Notre Dame will spend a decent amount of time this weekend reminding fans of the 1977 national championship team. When asked if he would get time to interact with that team much, Kelly pointed to just how busy this weekend is. By his approximate count as of late Thursday afternoon, the Irish are expecting 13 official visits, 82 total recruits and 250 guests.

Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s defense to be tested by USC in ways it has not yet seen

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Notre Dame’s season will not be deemed a success or a failure pending Saturday’s result against No. 11 USC, but the victory or defeat will determine the outlook moving forward. A win and suddenly the Irish are in the conversation for a spot in a playoff-eligible bowl. A loss and that goal needs a 5-0 finish to be even considered.

To be clear, a playoff-eligible bowl is not the same thing as the College Football Playoff. There are 12 spots in six games of the former, including the four playoff entrants into the CFP itself. Notre Dame can justifiably enter that more narrow discussion by winning its next two games, the latter coming against No. 16 North Carolina State just three days before the first CFP committee poll is released.

The CFP poll is the only one that matters in the long-run. But that’s getting ahead. This is about this weekend.

For now, a general consensus has the Trojans in the country’s top 12 and the Irish outside of it. Factoring in the required Group of Five entrant, the pertinent metric becomes top 11. A win over USC would establish Notre Dame as deserving of that possibility. It would also set a new ceiling for the season, pending that Oct. 28 encounter with the Wolfpack.

A loss, though, would limit the most-optimistic Irish outlook to a season with a worthwhile win or two (namely, at No. 22 Stanford to close the season) while still falling short of returning anywhere genuinely near the country’s elite.

That is the big-picture lesson to be gleaned from this weekend. This is Notre Dame’s second chance to notch a top-tier victory in 2017. Losing a one-point contest to a veritable national title contender is one thing. Losing both that and a rivalry game to the great but not-yet-refined Trojans would mark the continuation of a trend of not prevailing when it matters most. Dominating Michigan State, Boston College and North Carolina — all on the road — is a good step, but it loses much of its significance if not followed up with a more impressive victory.

To get that victory, the Irish secondary needs to hold its own against a genuine passing attack. USC throws for nearly 300 yards per game (296.43, to be exact). Believe it or not, the most-dangerous attack Notre Dame has faced this season was Temple’s, currently averaging 251.1 yards per game, followed by Miami (OH)’s 241.6. If insisting this comparison be to a Power-Five opponent, North Carolina throws for 212.7 yards per game.

Let’s defer to an even more worthwhile measure. The Trojans average 7.89 yards per pass attempt. Of those already mentioned, only the RedHawks are within shouting distance at 7.48 yards per attempt. (Temple: 6.68; North Carolina: 6.42.)

USC junior quarterback Sam Darnold has all the tools to pick apart any secondary, and his receiving corps is deep enough to stretch any secondary thin — junior receiver Deontay Burnett leads the way with 49 catches for 626 yards and six touchdowns, followed by fifth-year receiver Steven Mitchell and his 23 catches for 333 yards and two scores.

Notre Dame will need all hands on deck from its secondary, including sophomore safety Jalen Elliott’s, to slow USC’s passing attack. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

The Irish cornerbacks are a talented group and the safeties have outperformed the summer’s low expectations, but the Trojans passing attack should win that matchup outright. The determining factors will come down to two things: Can Notre Dame limit or completely deny big plays and can the Irish manage an interception or two?

If those answers are yes, then Darnold’s yards and Burnett’s touchdowns take on a mitigated effect. If not, then such would be the sign of a USC rout.

If entirely dependent on the secondary, preventing those big plays seems unlikely. The Irish pass rush could tilt those odds back toward the home team, though.

Speaking of Notre Dame’s front seven, how will junior linebacker Te’von Coney hold up in the second half when playing every or nearly every snap?

Junior linebacker Te’von Coney has played well in a part-time role, making 42 tackles, second on the Irish defense. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

To date, Coney and senior linebacker Greer Martini have split duties. At points, Coney has slipped in for senior Nyles Morgan, as well, to line up alongside Martini. But Martini suffered a knee injury in practice during the bye week.

The emphasis will now be on Coney. In order for the Irish to put pressure on Darnold, defensive coordinator Mike Elko has to trust Coney will stick to his assignments, even as fatigue sets in. When it comes to the running game, Coney cannot miss any fits if Notre Dame wants to contain Trojans running back Ronald Jones.

Remember that 52-yard scamper off a quarterback sneak by Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke? That came from Coney standing by rather than filling a gap. Such a lapse may be unaffordable in a contest as close as Saturday’s is expected to be.

If Coney doesn’t get every snap, who steps in for him? With the arguable exception of junior Asmar Bilal, no other linebacker has seen genuine playing time this season. Bilal has filled in at only rover, spelling senior Drue Tranquill.

With that in mind, and looking at how aggressively the Irish coaches have pursued linebackers in the recruiting class of 2018, the current freshmen and sophomores may not have earned much faith. It would be a surprise to see any of them thrown into the fire against USC.

That could leave the intriguing possibility of junior cornerback Shaun Crawford. Earlier this week, this space posited moving sophomore cornerback Julian Love to safety could get Crawford onto the field more often, and Crawford should get onto the field more often. Another option would be to deploy nickel defenses in more situations.

Based on his play thus far this season, more snaps for junior cornerback Shaun Crawford would be a good thing ofr Notre Dame’s defense. Crawford has made 14 tackles, including 1.5 sacks, intercepted two passes and recovered two fumbles including one he forced to prevent a touchdown. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

At 5-foot-9 and a listed 176 pounds, Crawford would seem to be undersized filling in for the 6-foot-1, 240-pound Coney. (Ronald Jones, by the way, is 6-foot, 200 pounds.) However, if Crawford can provide fresh legs and even just lay shoulder pads on Jones in the hole, that could certainly qualify as serviceable. Add in Crawford’s penchant for making plays and suddenly that outside-the-box possibility may hold merit. For that matter, those nickel packages could help against the aforementioned passing attack.

If Notre Dame can slow USC’s offense, can the Irish offense score enough against a decent defense?

While Notre Dame scored 38 points against Michigan State, one touchdown came from an interception return and another score was set up by a turnover deep in Spartans territory. If excluding those, suddenly a 24-point output against a strong defense would be concerning. Similarly, the Irish managed only 19 points against Georgia.

USC’s defense is not on the same level as either of those units, but it is better than the four teams Notre Dame has averaged 46.5 points against.

Specifically, the Trojans rush defense is about average by yards per carry, allowing 4.12, good for No. 65 in the country. (Georgia: 2.82 yards, No. 7; Michigan State: 2.93, No. 10; Temple: 4.48 yards, No. 78.) If Irish junior running back Josh Adams can find chunks of yardage against USC, it will bode well both for Saturday night and the longer run, pun somewhat intended.

Will any other wrinkles emerge from the bye week? (Read: Kevin Stepherson.)

The above Crawford proposal is the kind of development that can stem from a well-spent bye week: Identify someone having success in the first half of the season and find ways to get him more opportunities in the second half.

Another version identifies a player struggling in the first half and finds better situations for him in the second half. Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson does not exactly meet that criteria since he spent the first four games of the year serving some version of a suspension, but he has not shown anything of note in the two games since his return. He has actually lost yardage with one catch for negative three yards.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly acknowledged Stepherson was not quite up to game shape, but the two games of dabbling plus a bye week of re-acclimating may have gotten him there.

“What we saw was somebody that needed to get reintroduced into the game and get back up to game speed, game conditioning,” Kelly said Tuesday. “In a sense, [the bye week] was preseason for him in a lot of ways.

“He’s had a really good off-week and this week, you’ll see more of him. As we progress over the next half of the season, our expectations are to see his role increase.”

Stepherson has the speed to take the top off any secondary. Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has arm strength that can hardly be outrun. The math should be pretty simple, if Stepherson is indeed back up to game speed.